Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Showing your Working-out: workshopping laid bare

Yesterday I finished an enjoyable Seven / Seven, the last of the year, and my first for even longer. I haven't played Sevens for a good while, partly because my poem-a-day muscles have seriously lacked exercise, and also because I've repeatedly chickened out. Writing a poem a day for seven days -- let alone for an entire month, for April's NaPoWriMo -- seems like near-madness now, and the results almost embarrassing, whereas I used to relish it, back when I thought that all that bled from my pen was pure gold. Anyway, look down there. I have a few things I can work from here, I think, and I also think I'll play Sevens again in January. Feel free to join me, if you fancy it.

Finally, it's been good (and terrifying) to show you, the reader, the whole process. It has meant me swallowing some pride, and being willing to screw up every so often: the shine has once again been taken off the notion of 'Poetry', and the game has reminded me to scrape it back and remember why I started scribbling poems in the first place, years before I became a slave to the computer (I can hardly write without it anymore). I have been showing my working-out, like a good little mathematics pupil. I hated maths in school, so it pains me to say it, but I'm sure all this was the reason my maths teacher insisted that we handed in our botched bits, rubbings, scribblings-out, strike-throughs, along with our finished work. Back then, I didn't get it. I wondered why I couldn't just hand in the answers when they were done (if they were done at all, because I sometimes managed to sleep at my desk without being disturbed). But I get it now. Indeed, process is an arform in itself, as conceptual art is reminding us all the time. Music as well: everyone has, I think, heard at least some of the demos / b-sides / studio rejects from their favourite bands. We're not always going to like these musical messes, and they'll sometimes award us with nothing more than a good laugh, but that is never the point. Also (and I know it's a cliche), showing your working-out keeps you humble, and opens you up to further growth. Of course, it can also look unprofessional, but if you've made it this far, you'll join me in saying balls to that.

In that spirit, here's a confession: two of these Sevens poems didn't exactly fit the brief. One of them is a draft I've been throwing around, trying to beat into submission, for... a long time (I won't tell you which it is, just that the title has already changed since I posted the draft you see here). The other was written with a second pair of eyes, and a skilled pair of scissor-hands (all the better to cut the crap with...). That poem is 'Adam and Eve It', and my collaborator was Ira Lightman. Being a conceptual / experimental poet who is also passionate about mathematics, Ira has, since I've known him, helped me to be less embarrassed about showing the working-out (even as part of the aesthetics of the poem itself; uncertainty is, I think, something to utilise even in finished pieces). Sharing this poem with Ira on Facebook, and asking him to do his worst on it, led to the following exchange. I share it with you here in full -- including an early draft riddled with problems -- in the spirit of showing my working-out, and not being afraid of the embarrassing bits. If you learn something from the process (for instance, how to lay irony on with a trowel), then great. If not, just enjoy the voyeuristic element -- because, well, I would.

Hi Ira. Question: is this any good?

The Prosaic Law

Adam, before half a wishbone,
was an androgyne, yes. But
you know the rainbow
God whipped out after the flood
cannot be said to bend
over the LGBT, hermeneutically.

Adam formed of dust,
humanity restarted
after a redraft:
both Prosaic Law, not
your quasi-genre, poetry,
hence not open to just
any interpretation.

Try this:

After Snake was cursed, Adam and Eve,
others, such as Shadrach,
Meshach and Abdednego
commenced shadow-play behind a sheet,
partied through the millennia frivolously.

They’re still here, in you and I,
taking Brighton Pier Theatre by monsoon.
Do not drink their poison; run for shelter from
their venomous agenda. Men can make a meal
of the word, remember. Male and Female cuts
like Knife and Fork. Fabulous places open after dark.
Hmmm, I'm not on first reading keen. I like the rhyme of wishbone and androgyne. I love the line "Male and Female cuts / like Knife and Fork." And I like the sonorous list of
Shadrach, Meshach and Abdednego.

But I am left cold by most of the remainder. I can't get enough narrative, and every line is said in a rephrased way and quite knowingly. I want a more direct narrative and declaration, really.
Hmm... OK, fair enough. So it reads as if I'm deliberately taking the mickey, and you want to just more simply narrate it without the sarcastic affectations.
Perhaps yes. I hadn't heard them properly as sarcasm but yes straight into sarcasm is what's bothering me.
Any better? Another option for a title is 'I Don't Idiom and Eve It' 
The Prosaic Law
Adam, before half
a wishbone, was an androgyne.
But the rainbow
God unfurled after the flood
can't be said to cover
the queer, logistically. 
Humanity made of soil,
restarted after a redraft:
both Prosaic Law
hence, not open to just
any interpretation. Try this: 
After Snake was cursed, Adam and Eve,
others, such as Shadrach,
Meshach and Abednego
commenced shadow-play behind a sheet,
played through the millennia frivolously. 
They’re still here, taking Brighton
Palace Pier Theatre by monsoon.
Do not drink their poison; run for shelter
from their agenda. Men can make a meal
of the Word, remember. Male and Female
cuts like Knife and Fork. Fabulous places
open after dark.
Why is it about idiom and prose when it's such an important subject as sexism and homophobia in the Christian church? I think (as often) the fidgetting about form could be taken out.
IL (fiddles with my poem, unbeknownst to me):
Adam, before the difference of half
a wishbone, was an androgyne.
Before Noah, no rainbow, fun-
damentalists insist. Run

for shelter from their agenda. Remember
Men can make a meal of the Word. Male and Female
cuts like knife with fork.
MB (slightly mortified that my poem is so much smaller): 
OK, I see what you mean. The 'Prosaic Law' stuff is meant to mimic the 'Mosaic Law', which of course contains the Levitical prohibitions against homosexuality. Theologically, conservatives are often arguing that you can't take poetic liberties with commands -- hence not open to any interpretation, etc.
I'm just suggesting some weak parts. I don't see that it's half a wishbone that makes Adam not an androgyne. I think much of the middle part is off the subject. Shadrach, Meshach and Abdednego have nothing to do with snakes, why them and not other Biblical characters? Why change the subject to fire which you do by invoking them? The prosaic stuff is about your general approach, in which case make a much longer piece, and make this an episode of it.
Yes, all very good points. So cut all this down to its essentials, and use the prosaic vs. the poetic / imaginative as a possible way of making this longer.
And you've made the case against literalists and fundamentalists before, hence I preferred to edit it as light and cutting. And introducing the rainbow when discussing Eden is tricky too, as there are not supposed to be rainbows before Noah.
Indeed, and I don't want to state the obvious either, which makes this kind of poem kind of scary... Theologically, the androgyny stuff is something which conservatives think they can refute fairly easily. So does a weak theological argument (I don't think it is, by the way) equal a weak poetic idea?
I like the way it is mostly eating metaphors now, wishbone and making a meal of the Word.
And nuts to conservatives. I'm persuaded Adam could be thought of that way. (Also, between you and me, the over sarcastic tone made you sound like you might be a Christian who doesn't like gays.)
DID IT? Oh dear. Well, that's a constant worry when I'm trying to get close to the bone. So to speak.
As for seeing Adam that way, yes, another thing I've been looking at a bit is Jewish mysticism. That, in part, is where queer theology tends to find that androgyny instead of the strict male / female dichotomy which is famously 'biblical'.
I think it's hard to mention the rainbow without mentioning Noah. I do think mentioning the rainbow is vital, the colour and strangeness of it, and it expresses pro-Gay feeling, and it also hints at the deep meaning that underneath the flag of difference we are all the same and Christians need to take down their own divisions, and stop pretending to be so WASP and unqueer.
Well, I love Jewish mysticism; Judeo-Christianity is where it's at. Can't come to the Father except through the Son, and can't come to the Son except through the Father.
I love the idea from queer theory that we're all 'queer', and that the only people who have made a choice are those who have decided to be straight, over and above anything else. Everyone else just likes what they like and isn't so obsessed with defining it. I like that idea.
I do too. And you're working towards it in the poem. But you're a bit hampered, like you're not quite getting jiggy enough with it, and still a bit too accommodating to the conservatives.
Bugger. Heh.
So get jiggy.
MB (after some getting jiggy):
OK, so I've only changed one linebreak, making the stanzas almost mirror each other, lineation-wise. That's it.
Adam, before the difference
of half a wishbone, was an androgyne. Before Noah 
[new linebreak] 
no rainbow, fun-
damentalists insist. Run
for shelter from their agenda. Remember
men can make a meal of the Word. Male and Female
cuts like knife with fork.
MB (breaking a nerve-wracking silence):
Any idea for a title? 'Marginal Jottings' or something...
Stop writing titles about WRITING.
"Adam and Eve it"?
Haha -- OK.

Yes, I like 'Adam and Eve it'.
(I liked 'Jot and Tittle' the other day, though... );)
I do hope history records somewhere the collaborative Pound and Eliot work we do together, as I brutalize your poor poems with a blue pencil and throw Noah in willy-nilly. Perhaps we could publish one of these correspondences on your blog?


  1. Thanks Mark and Ira for sharing the process. In my case the process is often 'merely' in-the-room conversation with my husband or in unsaved previous versions or on pieces of paper that (usually) get binned as they look clumsy compared to the final version. But sometimes I'm loathe to throw them out because of the path they trace falteringly towards that point when we say - yes, that's it. Not only is that journey its own kind of poetry but one hopes that the lessons (drop the adjectives, don't write about writing, be more specific, etc) are useful to remember for next time. Thanks again. Next time - Mark commenting on Ira's?

  2. Interesting Mark -- I didn't have the energy this time... but I agree, it is a good process in many ways.